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by Michael Portantiere

Arlo Hill Sings Frank Loesser

  • Arlo-Hill-edit.jpgOne of America's greatest composer/lyricists, Frank Loesser in a sense had three careers -- as a writer of stand-alone songs during the Tin Pan Alley era, songs for Hollywood films, and scores for great Broadway shows. The list of his hits alone, not to mention a full catalogue of his works, is long and incredibly impressive.

    Arlo Hill sang in the City Center Encores! presentations of two of Loesser's shows, Where's Charley? and The Most Happy Fella. His other credits include The Phantom of the Opera on Broadway, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes for Encores!, and the New York Philharmonic's Carousel, as well as leads in Fiddler on the Roof and You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown regionally and internationally, and productions of The Fantasticks and The Pirates of Penzance at Harvard.

    Now, Arlo is gearing up to perform a show he put together himself: I've Been in Love Before: The Songs and Stories of Frank Loesser, at 54 Below on Wednesday, July 2 at 7pm. Since I share his deep appreciation for Loesser, I thought it would be great to chat with him about the show and help him get the word out.


    BROADWAYSTARS: Tell me about the genesis of the show.

    ARLO HILL: I kind of workshopped it a year ago, at The Triad. I had been hoping to interview Jo Sullivan [Loesser's widow] back then, but their office was busy with other things. So there was a lot of back and forth, and finally we were able to sit down a week or two ago. I was interested in how it was going to work out; I had more or less set my script and the message I wanted to convey, and I was excited but a little worried that what she would say might contradict the story I wanted to tell. But I was very fortunate and gratified that what she said was in line with my research. For instance, there's this great story of Loesser nearly getting into a fight with Frank Sinatra on the set of Guys and Dolls. You know, Sinatra is singing "Sue Me," crooning away at it, and Loesser says, "Why don't we go back to my place for a coaching?" Sinatra says, "You can come to my dressing room if you want to work with me." Then they start screaming expletives at each other, and have to be pulled apart. When I interviewed Jo, she confirmed the story, and she said that they got into an actual fistfight. Even though she wasn't there for the incident, I thought: "If she says it's true, who am I to say she's embellishing?"

    STARS: I loved Where's Charley? at Encores! That was your first show there.

    ARLO: Yes, and I think it planted the seeds for my show. I really didn't know who Frank Loesser was except for Guys and Dolls. But the Where's Charley? score is so wonderful, and Jo Sullivan came and told some great stories at the talkback. Then, after that, I kept on hearing great songs in class and through audition doors. I would ask, "Who wrote that?", and it was always a Frank Loesser song. So I started a collection of songs of his that I loved, and eventually I thought, "I need to do something with these."

    STARS: The Most Happy Fella was another wonderful Encores! production. It must have been a thrilling experience.

    ARLO HILL: That's my favorite score of any musical. It's so unusual, and so special. Doing it at Encores! with a 38-piece orchestra and 38 people in the cast was magical. The first time I saw she show was in Clevland, when I was growing up -- at the Cleveland Lyric Opera, which no longer exists. I was very young when I saw it, and I remember enjoying it as a funny, silly show. Then, a few years back, I was listening to the original cast recording at the gym, and I just had to stop, because it was so moving. "My Heart is So Full of You," and all of the second act...

    STARS: I thought the acting of Shuler Hensley and Laura Benanti in the scene where Rosabella has to tell Tony she's pregnant with another man's child was extraordinary.

    ARLO: Yes. I would watch that moment every night from the wings, and Shuler's reaction was from deep inside him. He'd do a sudden turn, lift his cane, and scream "Get out!" In rehearsal, the first time we ran the second act, we were all ready to come in with the "aahs" in the finale, but no one could sing because everyone was sobbing.

    STARS: You were in the "Standing on the Corner" quartet, and I see you're planning to do that number in your show with some of the cast from Encores! That will be a treat. By the way, I think the title of your show is very clever.

    ARLO: Thanks. You know, that's actually a song -- it's not just a play on "I've Never Been In Love Before" from Guys and Dolls. "I've Been in Love Before" is a song from 1940, with lyrics by Loesser and music by Friedrich Hollaender.

    STARS: I did not know that. Loesser wrote so many wonderful, varied types of songs for all sorts of projects. The other night, I was watching the movie Hans Christian Andersen...

    ARLO: Yes. "Inchworm" is another song that I didn't realize for years was by Frank Loesser. I think I learned that one in kindergarten.

    STARS: When I interviewed Robert Morse years ago, I asked him about Loesser, and I remember him saying, "Frank was a great teacher." He told me how, during rehearsals for How to Succeed, Loesser brought him into the theater where the show was going to play, and they worked there to set the keys for the songs while Morse was running through them on stage.

    ARLO: That's so smart. Nowadays, they would just say, "We'll fix it with the sound system." Having a big voice that carried to the back of the house was apparently Loesser's number one criterion for hiring singers.

    STARS: If he were still alive and could hear some of the singing and the amplification on Broadway today, he'd probably be rolling over in his grave. Oh wait....that's a contradiction.

    ARLO: Although I like that sentence: "If he were still alive, he'd be rolling over in his grave!" He'd get into his grave, roll over, and say, "Cover me up. I'm done." I think he actually felt that way towards the end of his life. He died in 1969. In his daughter Susan's book about him, she writes about how, with shows like Hair opening on Broadway, he had started to feel out of step with the times for the first time in his life.

    STARS: So, your show is very biographical?

    ARLO: Yes. Loesser had such an interesting life. You may know the whole story about his first wife, Lynn. She was a co-producer of The Most Happy Fella, and she helped cast the show. She knew of Jo Sullivan, and she said to Frank, "Why don't you meet this wonderful singer? I think you'll love her." And he did.

    STARS: Tell me about the first version of your show at The Triad.

    ARLO: I originally called it Asking for Trouble, which is the title of one of his lesser-known songs. No one knows it, although there's a recording of him singing it. The lyrics are, "I'm only asking for trouble each time we kiss. Each time I let the warmth of you melt me down, I'm like a child walking right into danger, taking candy from a stranger on the wrong side of town. Why don't I run on the double from your embrace, and never learn what heartbreak is all about? I'm only asking for all kinds of trouble, and you're much too ready to hand it out." I thought, that fits so perfectly into the story of how he must have felt when he met Jo during rehearsals of The Most Happy Fella. His marriage to Lynn was already a bit on the rocks, and it was very clear to both of them that he was falling in love with his leading lady.

    STARS: What other research on his life have you done?

    ARLO HILL: I've listened to other recordings of him singing his own songs. Have you heard any of those? He was a very good singer. He didn't have a beautiful voice, but he phrased the lyrics so well.

    STARS: I've seen a clip of him playing a gangster in an old movie; I don't remember the title.

    ARLO: Red, Hot and Blue. I haven't seen it, but you know, Loesser was very short, and there's a great photo of a scene from the movie where's he's being held up in the air by these two other gangsters. He was quite a character.

    STARS: Do you have any Frank Loesser dream roles?

    ARLO: That's a good question. I guess I think of the songs more than the roles. I love "My Time of Day" and "I've Never Been in Love Before," but it's not like I look at the role of Sky Masterson and think, "That's me!" Maybe in a handful of years it will be.

    STARS: What about Greenwillow?

    ARLO: The Anthony Perkins role? Well, I'm singing "Never Will I Marry" in my show, so maybe somebody will see it and say, "I want to do that show and put him in it!"

    Published on Sunday, June 29, 2014

    Michael Portantiere has more than 30 years' experience as an editor and writer for TheaterMania.com, InTHEATER magazine, and BACK STAGE. He has interviewed theater notables for NPR.org, PLAYBILL, STAGEBILL, and OPERA NEWS, and has written notes for several cast albums. Michael is co-author of FORBIDDEN BROADWAY: BEHIND THE MYLAR CURTAIN, published in 2008 by Hal Leonard/Applause. Additionally, he is a professional photographer whose pictures have been published by THE NEW YORK TIMES, the DAILY NEWS, and several major websites. (Visit www.followspotphoto.com for more information.) He can be reached at [email protected]

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